Migration – the reality and the official statistics

The Prime Minister gave his flagship speech on migration a few days ago and, perhaps inadvertently, issued a stark warning about the quality of official statistics. He said that the official estimates of HMOs (homes of multiple occupation) in one part of London were out by a factor of sixty! 

The PM’s speech is on the No 10 website but that’s not exactly the version he gave. The spoken words can be found on youtube. The introduction to the speech, missing from the official version, is most revealing.

He said that on the morning of the speech (21 May) he’d been out with an immigration enforcement team in the London Borough of Ealing. Apparently when he’d last done that he was told: “We’re not getting proper data sharing between HMRC and Home Office. If only we had that data we could find more illegal migrants and send more of them home.” So, he said, the problem was “fixed” and “the series of arrests today are based on using that data.”

So far so good. Regardless of the merits of any policy the government of the day chooses, we should be pleased that data is being used to develop policy, and then directing action to deliver it effectively and using resources as efficiently as possible.

But he went on to say: “One figure that demonstrates the scale of the challenge we face ………. (the enforcement team) told us this very simple fact. That according to official figures there are 300 HMOs in Ealing. But this new data reveals that the true figure is more like 20,000.” The PM queried if that was 20,000 in London and the officials apparently said, no, confirming that’s just in Ealing. That is, to say the least, a large gap between those numbers.

Whatever the truth – and we can only guess since the numbers were not sourced and are probably not in the public domain – there’s an issue for the statisticians to address.

I suspect that when the PM said: ‘…. we do have a real challenge of cracking down on illegal migration” he was referring to the logistics of such operations. But if there are no accurate official figures to act as an evidence base, the problem is even harder and certainly of unknown scale. And HMOs are important as it is the sort of accommodation that newly arrived and less well off people will be in.

I can only hope that the new National Statistician and the board of the UK Statistics Authority were listening. Hopefully they will start to take the use of administrative data more seriously and take urgent action on data sharing. It is time for UKSA to sideline their half-hearted plans for the use of admin data in the 2021 census and start to get some real life new statistics that people will find believable – and can be used for policy. We have no idea yet if UKSA was involved in the data sharing for this HMO data, but publicly UKSA has been too timid since data sharing legislation was introduced. It can now be more proactive as it looks like they have a powerful ally in No.10.

Anecdote and supposition: A couple moved out of a two room flat that neighbours some friends. The friends reckon that about 8-10 young men (not of British origin) now live there, sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags. Whatever their migration status, you can be pretty sure that those men, probably in contrast to the couple in the flat before them, will not be volunteering themselves for official data when the statisticians come calling to collect figures! They are probably the sort of people who are keen to keep off the radar as much as possible. Response rates to surveys are dangerously low and falling leaving ever larger question marks over data relating to potentially sensitive issues such immigration status. 

It is dangerous to let anecdote rule one’s view of the quality of official statistics but anyone who lives in London (especially, but also other big cities) will sense, as the politicians now seem to, that the population is rather greater than officially recorded. The 2001 census was woeful at collecting accurate data, it was improved upon in 2011 but it was still not good enough. No doubt use of the HMRC data could add more people to the nation’s population estimate and bring the totals closer to the truth. There will be more people still if other records – on health and education for example – were also to be used.

Hopefully the Prime Minister’s words will be a wake up call for the government’s statisticians. It should also be a warning to those who analyse the official migration data, be they part of government, like the migration advisory committee, or one of the many think tanks who pronounce on the topic. We, as consumers of the views, should take the conclusions with a bucket of salt.

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